Beckwith, Baptists, and the irony of it all…

In his 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen captured the essence and difficulty of Evangelical and Catholic fraternity:

“How great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today! We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church.”

If more poignant words have been written to describe my thoughts about the return of the president of the Evangelical Theological Society to full communion in the Roman Catholic Church, I’m not aware of them. An ever-widening abyss has hewn the rock of Baptist identity upon which the Southern Baptist Convention has taken its stand of Scripture authority. Meanwhile, reflective Baptists increasingly find themselves stretching hands across trifling ecclesial gulfs to fellowship, dialogue, and partner for the end to which Jesus Christ sent his church into the world: the Great Commission to baptize and disciple the nations.

Thus Frank Beckwith has loosened the ties that bound his confession to Baptist life, finding in the Great Tradition a more hospitable and rewarding fellowship of theological and philosophical inquiry. And to be honest, who can blame him after the way he’s been blistered and bullied in the house called Baptist.

I’ve been asking myself in the past few days whether or not Beckwith represents the true spirit of the American Evangelical experiment, and his “Evangelical” detractors the kind of ecclesial rigidity and confessional eccentricity that spawned the Reformation in the first place. Or to put it more bluntly, I’m wondering whether Southern Baptists have come to resemble Roman Catholicism more than men like my Baylor professor, who so recently returned to Rome.

Or even more bluntly, I wonder if it isn’t true that Paige Patterson and Malcolm Yarnell, for instance, could more easily crown their collective head with a papal miter than did Karol Wojtyla or Joseph Ratzinger.

I suppose I should make a few preliminary concessions and disavowals. First, I am not entirely original in my comparisons between the Southern Baptist Convention as it has become in the last several years and the Roman Catholic Church as it was before Vatican II. In the late 1980s, Clark Pinnock – another Evangelical whose legacy some Southern Baptists would like to strike from memory – famously debated Paige Patterson and raised this very point.

Second, I do not mean by this comparison to suggest that fundamentalists within Southern Baptist ranks have denied the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the symbolic view of the Eucharist, or the practice of believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership. In making the comparison, I only wish to raise what I believe are serious questions about the degree to which Baptists are in danger of succumbing to the same abuses of ecclesial power that first compelled an Augustinian monk named Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenburg.

Third, I confess that my own reading of the church fathers has stimulated my thinking about the value and veracity of more enduring traditions. That, coupled with my consuming interest in the political theology of the Middle Ages, has given me an appreciation for the Church in Rome that I could never have developed while nursing at the ecclesial teat of fundamentalist Evangelicals like Patterson and Yarnell.

A rich and rewarding ecumenism is available for Baptists wishing to escape the provincialism that has polluted our denominational stream. We may embrace the dialogue and profit thereby, that is, if certain men are powerless to restrict our freedom with fear of ostracism or even excommunication. It is possible to retain our Baptist identity without acquiescing to the oxymoronic fundamentalist intelligentsia or impeding the confessional potency of our distinct heritage.

Quite simply, there is a way to be Baptist that requires neither a lobotomy nor a vasectomy.

I want to examine ten ways that the current Southern Baptist Convention is dangerously reminiscent of the earlier Roman Catholic Church so as to necessitate an urgent reforming alliance among us monks doing theology in the hinterlands of denominational life. These striking similarities differ in the strength of their comparison, though all of them, I believe, are worthy of consideration. Some of these comparisons will anger, and some will provoke. Others will resonate and convince. Some Southern Baptist leaders will object to any comparison. Still others will think I’ve not gone far enough.

Whatever your predisposition, I ask you to keep an open and fair mind, reflecting on these ideas and interacting as you see fit. My thesis is not fully formed or exhaustively argued. These are rather the mere ruminations of a traveling Baptist, offered for you to masticate and/or expectorate as needed.

Part two coming tomorrow…

5 thoughts on “Beckwith, Baptists, and the irony of it all…

  1. I have read many historians and social commentators say that the SBC is the Roman Catholic Church of the American South, and in a sense, America. We would never call ourselves that, but I think that that comparison is accurate. If it is true, we have a great deal of blood on our hands from turning a blind eye to slavery and segregation. No one wants to talk about that, but when I found out in college that people in my home church (that were still alive) were part of the lynching party of a black man in our county in the late 1950’s, and when I realize that people walking around our city today who are in their 60’s participated in dreadful things, I realize that these are not dead issues. They affect how we see ourselves and how others see us.

    The power of the SBC is vast on one hand, but impotent on the other. We influence the lives of millions according to what is important to us (putting the Republicans in power, for instance), but we are unable to address other issues that are life and death for many. The problem is not with our power, but how it is used. When just a few men hold that power tightly, then the influence and focus goes where they want it to go, and their theological and social blind spots are filtered down upon us all. In that sense, we greatly resemble the Roman Catholic Church.

    I look forward to your future posts on this.

  2. Now just who is it that troubles Israel? :)

    You may want to scour the CT archives. If my memory serves me they ran a short piece between 1981-1990 under the title something like, “Are Protestants Becoming Catholic?”

    I think your piece is healthy … interested in part 2

  3. Ben,

    When you write substantive posts, they are often so substantive that responding in a mere comment is nearly impossible. I always enjoy reading this kind of post from you, even when I disagree (as I obviously do with this one). If I get motivated enough to do so, I may post somewhat of a reply on my site in the next few days.

    But right now I must attempt to lay siege to Camelot, valiantly protected at the moment by my four-year-old.

  4. Southern Baptists of the 21st Century are blessed with a contemporary gadfly in you, Mr. Cole! Hold that thought while this Okie asks a question which has come to mind more than once when he has read your blog: Ben, is your favorite attire a camel-haired suit with a leather belt accessory around your waist; and, is your favorite gourmet treat roasted grasshoppers? In any case, “Ben the Baptist” has an intriguing ring to it, wouldn’t you say? . . . ;^)

    In His Grace and Peace,

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